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Literature / The Croning

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The Croning is a Cosmic Horror Story from 2012, written by American author Laird Barron.

In the early middle ages, a Spy goes on a mission given to him by his sister, the Queen. He is to track down a strange, misshapen dwarf, who has made a deal with the Queen; she must learn his true name, or he will take her firstborn child as payment for a favor he once did her. The mysterious dwarf proves much more illusive than originally thought, and the quest takes the Spy to the end of civilisation at the far edges of the realm, where he discovers something terrible and very old lurking in an ancient temple hidden in shadows of the mountains.

In 1958, Donald "Don" Miller, a professor in geology is on vacation in Mexico City with his wife, Michelle, who is a renowned professor in anthropology, but after a mysterious phone call from a colleague, Michelle goes missing. As he attempts to find her, a worried Don is recommended to seek out help from two local retired police officers, who join Don in his search. But his two companions quickly prove to be somewhat unhinged and untrustworthy, and Don finds himself getting involved in a series of increasingly bizarre and dangerous situations in the far outskirts of the city, that culminates in him ending up in a cave in the mountains outside the city, which is rumoured to contain a bottomless pit. Here, he has a close brush not only with death, but also something much, much worse...

In 1980, Agent Tommy Crane of the NSA is investigating a highly strange case, involving the suicide of a mysteriously well-connected entomologist named Dr. Louis Plimpton. Before he died, Plimpton relayed a personal message to Crane, which eerily reminds him of something from his childhood.

In the present, a much older Don Miller is enjoying his retirement alongside Michelle in the countryside outside Olympia, Washington, where they are living in a old, rustic house, that once belonged to Michelle's family. While everything seems peaceful and idyllic on the surface, the ageing Don notices much to his concern that he is struggling with an unexplainable fear of darkness and occasional gaps in his memories, especially regarding some enigmatic event that happened to him in 1980. During a visit from him and Michelle's adult twins, outlandish things start happening around the house, and Don's fuzzy memory starts clearing up, as he soon begins to unearth some dark secrets about his wife and her family.

Tying all these strings together is the Children of the Old Leech. They always have been lurking in the shadows, and been with our species from time immemorial. And they love us.

Tropes present in this work:

  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Children have been infiltrating human society since prehistoric times, and have been known to recruit humans agents and servants for just about as long.
  • Affably Evil: Both Don's bosses, Barry Rourke and Connor Wolverton, are central members of The Conspiracy that collaborates with the Children. But they both are always unfailing polite and friendly to Don and are more than glad to answer his questions about their masters (mostly because they know he is not likely to remember any of the information they told him afterwards).
  • Aliens Are Bastards: The Children are powerful, immortal, and are leagues beyond humans in technology. They are also extremely petty jerks who love to torture and scare humans out of their wits simply because they enjoy feeding on their fear. They are also extremely vindictive, often inflicting a Fate Worse than Death on anyone they believe have slighted them, even if they have done so unwittingly. And they eat kids.
  • And Now for Someone Completely Different: The beginning of the story does this twice, with the first chapter being told from the viewpoint of the Spy, then the next from the viewpoint of Tommy Crane, first at the third chapter, the reader is introduced to Don Miller, who is the primary main character of the story.
  • Anachronic Order: Though the narrative for the most part most often follows Don as an old man in the present day, the story jumps a bit around in time, mostly between the present and 1980, but also does some detours to 1958 and even the early medieval period.
  • The Assimilator: The Children of the Old Leech have long since stopped procreating conventionally, seeing how they are basically immortal, and such the only purpose their young serve is to be eaten by their elders. Instead, they occasionally strengthen their ranks by seeking out "worthy" individuals amongst the dominant species on the planets they have colonized and abducting them to turn them into one of them through a somewhat vague, but overall rather nasty process.
  • Awful Truth: It is revealed that the holes in Don's memory are not due to early-onset dementia, but because the Children and the Dark Ones induce small scale brain damage in everyone they come into contact with. Don, however, suspects that it is also his own mind at play, trying to protect itself from remembering the full implications of what it has witnessed during his encounters with the Children of the Old Leech.
    Don figured the low-grade amnesia was also equal parts self-preservation. His consciousness was had evaluated the threat posed by these affronts to sanity and decided to dim the lights and flip the sign to OUT OF SERVICE.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: People assimilated over by the Children manifests these.
  • Baby as Payment: The Children's standard prize for sealing a deal with them. The Children make it no secret whatsoever that they plan to eat the baby in question and that they mostly demand this price not only because they find children tasty, but also because they know humans considers it a heinous act — they derive sadistic amusement from viewing a human squirm over the moral implications of agreeing to the price.
  • Body Horror: Invoked. The Children are able to bend and twist their human-host bodies in all kinds of unnatural and disturbing shapes, but of the subtle and not-so-subtle kind, and frequently do it on purpose to unnerve or even scare the humans they interact with, seemingly just for laughs.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: In addition to being the Queen's brother, the Spy is madly in love with her and the father of the child they're trying to protect.
  • Continuity Nod: The story contains a reference to Laird Barron's short story, The Broadsword, which takes place in the same universe.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Barry Rourke tells Don that, the way he sees it, he only has himself to blame for getting in too deep with the Dark Ones.
    Rourke: Man, you don't know when to let sleeping dogs lie. Always meddling. You simply had to go hunting for Michelle instead of listening to sage advice and spending a couple of extra days drunk at the hotel bar.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Kurt, Don, Argyle, and Hank decide to go in search of a strange clearing in the forestry wilderness behind the old Mock House that Kurt encountered in his childhood. The expedition stumbles something much more horrible than expected, and Argyle and Hank are killed in the process, while Kurt and Don barely manage to escape.
  • Deal with the Devil: The specialty of the Children. They can grant you quite a few things, and even fulfill some wishes otherwise thought impossible. All it costs is a child. Preferably one of your own, or just one related to you. In the end, Don agrees to such a deal too, in exchange for the safety of his daughter and him and Michelle gaining immortality.
  • Defiant to the End: Don is incredibly stubborn, and steadfastly refuses to be browbeat into submission by any threats of how the wrath of the Children and the Old Leech might rain down upon him that Rourke, Wolverton, and Ford level at him, no matter how much existential dread they might instill in him, even at one point gathering enough willpower to overcome being frozen by fear and managing to kill Rourke, when he is otherwise at him and Wolverton's mercy. Ford even implies that it is something that runs in his bloodline, telling him that his distant ancestors often have shown the same tenacity throughout the ages. It is eventually subverted though; Don might be able shrug off threats against himself, but Michelle and the twins is another matter entirely...
  • Downer Ending: Don decides to enter into a deal with the Children. Eternal life for him and Michelle, and the safe return of his daughter, in exchange for the life of his infant grandson. And once he remembers the deal, he won't be in a position to regret it anymore.
  • Eats Babies: Very much played for horror. The Children eat their own children for sustenance, and see infants and children from every species they colonize as a delicacy.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Old Leech, which the Children serve. Not many details about it is revealed about it, but Bronson Ford reveals as much that it vastly outclasses him and the other Children in terms of power, and it have the ability to bend space and even time itself. The Old Leech is also but one of the Dark Ones, of which there are quite a few.
  • Eldritch Location: Don and Hank stumbles upon a strange, old dolmen tomb in a clearing in the wilderness far behind the Mock House. Don notices that there shouldn't be such a tomb there, since no Native American culture was known to build dolmens, and such a structure should by all means already have been discovered by government or private surveyors long ago. Even stranger, it seems to be Bigger on the Inside. Hank decides to enter and explore it despite Don's warnings and misgivings, and is never seen again.
  • Emotion Eater: The Children have the ability to feed on human anguish and fear. It is indicated that they strictly speaking don't need it, per say, but they find the sensation of absorbing it extremely delightful, like a recreational drug.
  • Exact Words: "Rumpelstiltskin" promised the Queen he would not take her child if she could guess his name before the deadline. Just straight-up murdering her is, technically, not taking her child.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Don reasons he doesn't need to worry about Old Leech and his Children taking over the world, because it's so far in the future he and everyone he knows will be long dead. Mr. R/Bronson, however, corrects him: if the Children are sufficiently pissed off at Don, they are perfectly capable of keeping him alive as long as they want, just so they can force him to witness it.
  • For the Evulz: The Children delight in casually inflicting traumatizing horror and pain upon any hapless human unlucky enough to stumble upon them, just for kicks. Most telling, Bronson Ford aka Rumpelstiltskin doesn't actually need to give the people he offers to make a deal with any choice in the matter. He admits that him and his kin could just take whatever they damned well pleased if they wanted to do so. He really just likes to see the unfortunate human squirm under the weight of the Sacastic Choice.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Frequently invoked by the Children, because they find the utter terror released by such an event absolutely delicious to feast on.
    Bronson Ford: We sup of blood and fear, we rejoice in flensing away that which occults the truth. Pointless to repeat what you already know. Wolverton and Rourke told you everything. Your recognition of these facts is a chemical bloom that lights your cerebral cortex with fireworks. It is this dawning of horror upon primitive minds that gives me my greatest frisson. I have lived thousand of your own lifecycles and the taste of your revulsion and horror never grows stale.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Children whenever they walk around disguised as humans.
  • Human Disguise: Many of the Children employs this, walking around in the skin of the human they were before. Mostly as a way of protection because they are Weakened by the Light, but also because looking directly at their undisguised forms tends to inflict normal humans with a milder version of Go Mad from the Revelation.
  • Humans Are Insects: Don all but directly says the trope name doing his confrontation with Bronson Ford, as by now he has seen enough of the Children's general conduct to assume that this must be how they view mankind. Ford, however, tells him that it doesn't quite work like that.
    Don: Right. We're ants and you're the kid with the magnifying glass. Is that really all there is to this? I'd hoped that the universe either had a grant scheme or was at least monumentally indifferent. This Olympus crap is rather disappointing.
    Ford: Despite our superiority to you, we remain but a clog in the gears. We aren't gods, although the distinction is insignificant from your perspective.
  • I Have Your Wife: And daughter. While the Children would ordinarily not want to hurt a Mock, they explain that Michelle's love for Don, combined with the fact he's openly defied them, presents a problem. They cannot tolerate divided loyalties, so either Don undivides her loyalty right quick by joining them, or they'll torture Michelle for all eternity along with him. They don't explicitly mention Holly, but they don't have to.
  • Intro-Only Point of View: Several times actually. The first section of the book, is told from the point of view of the Spy, a character living in the early medieval times, where most of the book is set in the present day. The short chapter where the viewpoint follows NSA agent Tommy Crane also qualifies, working mainly as a way to set up The Conspiracy, and to show that not even the US government is safe from the threat the Children of the Old Leech pose.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Several human families from the higher echelons of society are in league with the Children, in exchange for riches, power, and a chance at immortality. Michelle's family, the Mocks, turns out to be one of them. As is Don's boss Barry Rourke. Don goes as far to speculate that the American government, and maybe other governments of the world are also in on the conspiracy to some degree or another. Kurt even invokes the name of the trope, when he muses on how deep his mother's family is in with the Children.
    Kurt: Fucking collaborators!
  • Messy Maggots: It is implied that the Children's true form are something along the lines of this. Implied because Don never gets a good look at said true form, and he praises himself lucky he never did.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: Combined with The Assimilator. The Children are a form of intergalactic parasite that have been infiltrating humankind for centuries, using human bodies to disguise their their true forms. It also overlaps slightly with Symbiotic Possession, in that the host body retains the memory of their own identity and eventually willingly works with the parasite.
  • Things That Go "Bump" in the Night: Bronson Ford professes to Don that he and the Children are, and have always been the boogeymen of humankind's scary stories.
  • Title Drop: A ritual called the croning is referred to several times. It seems to have something to do with being turned into a Child.
  • Sadistic Choice: Bronson Ford eventually manages to utterly break Don with one of these in the end, posing the question of what is ultimately more important to him: his wife and daughter, or his unborn grandchild?
  • To Serve Man: The Children prey upon humanity. Not so much grown humans, but human infants and children are a delicacy to them.
  • Uncanny Valley: In-Universe. Humans who has being converted to one of the Children, has this this to them. People who seem them notice that they appear to have too many vertebrae in their necks, have Black Eyes of Evil, and their bodies moves in ways that are either weird, or even impossible for a regular human. Worse still, it is even implied that the Children have the ability to turn this effect on or off at will and uses it to frighten humans for their amusement.
  • The 'Verse: This book shares a universe with others stories by Barron, most notably The Broadsword, The Men from Porlock (which even features a protagonist named Miller, who is heavily implied to be one of Don's relatives), and Mysterium Tremendum.
  • Was Once a Man: Most of the Children were once people. The way they operate is that they take some selected members of the species they colonise to join their ranks, so to speak, by turning them into one of their own. The process is rather horrifying from the unfortunate human's point of view.
  • We Meet Again: Don gets the strangest feeling that he has met the helicopter pilot, Derek Burton, before. He notices that Burton even gives him an knowingly smug smile and a wink as if to say "Yes, Don, we've met." Turns out that he used to be Ramirez, and still is. Well, kind of.
  • Weakened by the Light: The Children themselves feel uncomfortable in light, even when they are walking about in human form, and their God requires to dwell in complete darkness to stay alive. And so their plan to Take Over the World, is really just a Long Game, where they wait for the Sun to die out and leave the Earth in darkness, as they recruit some new human followers along the way.